Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: Ladakh


This has been a whirlwind week! I visited the Spituk Monastery, taking a local bus, which dropped me off in a lonely area at the foot of a cliff. I took a long walk up a winding road to this formidable monastery perched on yet another hill and overlooking the Indus Valley. (I don’t know how they build these multi-storied edifices in such precarious places). It was built in the 15th century on the site of an 11th century temple. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to be there, so I missed the icons, thangkas, antique arms, and ancient masks, but that didn’t keep me from wandering around old hallways, up massive stone stairways, and into courtyards where the main chapels were locked. It was fun, however, to see the Hindu Mahakali Temple that was several hundred feet above the monastery, containing the shrine of Vajnabhairava. There were dozens of bottles of oil in the entry (for lamps, no doubt), and two massive figures behind the altar that had multiple arms and legs. The masks on the wall were ferocious. I decided to behave myself from now on!

It was a mini-adventure getting home, since I was waiting for the bus where it dropped me off in the parched desert, until two workmen informed me that the bus stopped on a different road from the one where it dropped me off. People are so nice when they see a foreigner broiling in the sun and looking hopeless. Julley! Julley! OK, OK, they reply. laughing.

I bumped into Karin and Marco (from our Nubra Valley trip) on the way home and returned to a new favorite restaurant in the middle of town, Summer Harvest, for a farewell meal with them. We even shared a light Indian beer, my first alcohol in Ladakh, which was so weak it didn’t even affect my elbows. Later on we enjoyed walking the almost abandoned streets back to Changspa, occasionally using my headlamp, which, Saints Preserve Us, I haven’t yet lost.

Planting season is still in full sway here in Changspa, and every morning Aunt Sonam and Grandma are out in the fields planting onions and weeding the crops. Dawa says that they have enough onions from last year to feed the whole neighborhood, but Grandma insists on planting more. She can’t wait to get her hands in the dirt and works tirelessly until dusk. I love to see her, after a day’s work, turning her prayer wheel slowly and chanting from the ancient script, which is wrapped in cloth in the family room and only used for these occasions. This kind of life is what keeps these older people vital and feeling useful. They are needed and they have their specific roll in the family. And they are definitely revered. Now the barley has been sown and the irrigation begins. It’s such a beautiful sight to see the rows of freshly turned earth and the grid of squares made of dirt ridges around each different vegetable. A riot of green, gold, and brown with flowering trees and tall thin poplars around the edge. High mud-brick walls, and that sun every day–cold in the morning, hot at noon, and brisk at sunset.

James Wilson finally arrived on the 26th and we have done non-stop exploring ever since. I thought I had seen it all, but hadn’t gone on the Heritage Walk, or past Leh Palace up the hill above Leh to the Tsemo Tower and Chapel. I vowed I would NOT climb up to the Palace, again, from the inimitable back alleys, but this time we explored around it to the small stupa, and went up a steep dirt path to the tower high above. It was dizzying for me, for I’m not a big fan of exposure, but James loves to goad me on and especially if the walk along the cliff is narrow. Do all men thrive on scaring women? Well, I figure that if you don’t keep pushing yourself and let fear drive you, you might as well sit in the rocking chair and be done with it. Since I don’t have a rocking chair, I elect to push the limits. Mine, at least.

Nobody would believe what lies behind the small mosque in the center of Leh. Our wanderings led through a labyrinth of streets, part of the old city wall in the bread-making district, through tunnels of stone and a series of walkways, wooded paths, and old farms around a rushing stream that can only be forded by hopping from stone to stone. (The bridge washed out and hasn’t been replaced.) There were houses built in high places where you couldn’t imagine anyone getting to them, and new guest houses going up near them. We watched a chapatti maker, something I have never done, as he slapped the flattened and scored dough onto the sides of a round sunken oven, removing it when it started to crinkle and get brown. How he kept from burning his hand was amazing. And so was the chapatti we bought.

One afternoon we had a special treat. Rinchin, the eldest daughter at the Goba, and her sister, Lazes, took us to her old family home, which her great grandfather had built years ago. He was a very respected member of the community–a hunter, a farmer, and the father of seven children. This is where Great Aunt Sonam (only 67) still lives in a single room. We found the stone house off an alley not far from the present guest house, and headed up dark, narrow steps to explore the small rooms and hear the history of the family. It was fascinating, as were the special murals on the wall, each with its own story, which Rinchin has promised to tell me. There was such delight as the two girls explored the roof with its homemade prayer wheels, showed us the old kitchen with utensils still in place and real stone pots piled high, the tool room, and a living/sleeping area she had visited so often as a child and listened to the stories of her elders. They reminisced about running from roof to roof as children. That’s how close together the houses were. There were several wooden pillars, some finely decorated, that divided the sleeping from the living area. Rinchin tried on old traditional hats, showed us a sacred cock’s egg wrapped in tissue paper, and rummaged through two trunks made of yak skin and wood. And one of leopard skin. This is the experience every child has when going to “Grandma’s attic,” and we were thrilled to be a part of it. At 6 Auntie returned and insisted on making us tea, a process that is long and meticulous–boiling this and boiling that and straining the leaves–but results in the best milk tea I’ve ever had. These are the moments that make Ladakh live for me. It has such a rich culture and history and I’ve been blessed with finding such warm, open people willing to share it with me.

At the last minute I decided to return for two days to the Nubra Valley with James, Karin Skogstad, and a new friend from Holland, Anna Hendrix, an interesting young doctor with whom we’d had many conversations at the Goba. This seemed a bit crazy, but I found that seeing this natural wonder for the second time gave me another perspective on it. I hadn’t noticed the wild variety of carved sand dunes before, or the marmots or pashmina goats. And the wild roses and other foliage were now in full bloom. The first ride over the Khardung La at 18,380 ft. was in sunshine and, although cold, nothing like the second day when we returned in a white out, which turned into a blizzard at the pass. Nobody was there. The military station seemed locked up and there wasn’t a single car in sight. But it was quite an adventure, with so many trucks on the road, lugging crates of produce and trying to pass on the narrow, high roads. During the storm, two trucks got locked together and it took several tries to get them unhooked without sending one of them into the valley 1,000 ft. below. The banks of snow and ice were much higher than two weeks ago, and the road seemed to have more potholes filled with water and ice. It was exciting to go from one type of landscape to another and one temperature to another. We explored another couple of remote stupas as well as Disket and Hunder monasteries. And we did more walking around the guest house. In the morning I came upon a small two-humped camel, running in front of a school bus, that mercifully pulled over. The little fellow stopped to feed on a tree, and along came the camel driver with three adult camels. I said, “I think you’ve lost a camel.” He shook his head. “He’ll come along.” And sure enough, as the driver went further away, the little guy took off, legs splaying, huge feet beating the dust, until he had caught up. The driver offered me a short ride, which I took, and which I feel I don’t need to do again. Two humps. Now, that’s an experience!

James and I will be leaving tomorrow for five days of trekking, starting at Likir Monastery and ending at the famous Alchi and Lamayuru monasteries. We’ll be going with Stanzin Lhawang and even have two donkeys to carry our “stuff,” so unlike my other treks where we had porters. During this time I shall celebrate my birthday. You will get a full report!

Monasteries, Schools and Heavenly Sunshine

Those of you who know me will remember how I’ve complained over the years about the wall-to-wall music in buses and jeeps in Asia. Well, nothing is permanent, as the Buddhists say, and, indeed, I have changed. I’m actually enjoying the Ladakhi and Hindi music, and find it adds to the atmosphere of collegiality found in most buses. Now I’m looking for a tape to bring home.

I also want to recommend the Ladakh Tour Escort (, a group of helpful fellows who planned my sojourns to Tso Pangong and the Nubra Valley. It was Ajaz Ahmad who introduced us. I kidded them about the name escort and how one escort service brought down a New York governor. They laughed and said I wasn’t the first to mention it. There are dozens of such agencies in Leh, and it’s nice to find a reliable one with safe drivers and reasonable rates.

Karin Skogstad, a new friend, who is a professional photographer and yoga instructor, went with me to Thiksey Monastery on the local bus. As we reached the outskirts of Leh what did we see? A golf course…totally of sand. Now I wonder what sand traps look like on that course! But I guess if you’re an avid golfer you’ll play on anything.

We arrived at the foot of the monastery by noon, and started up the never-ending stone step switchbacks to reach the top…twelve-stories high. The monastery resembles the Potala in Lhasa and is a patchwork of buildings perched dramatically on the side of a steep hill. It was founded in 1430 and is the principal monastery of the Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist tradition in Ladakh. The ceremonies and chanting are all in Tibetan. At the summit of the hill is the private residence of the head lama, whose 65th birthday was celebrated the next day at two long life pujas (we only attended the first). Below extend twelve levels of buildings, including ten temples, chapels, and monks’ accommodations. There is also a restaurant, gift shop, excellent museum, and new guest rooms with balconies (at which Karin and I stayed). We also visited the school for young monks where our friend, Mark Manning teaches. What fun it was to watch him play games with his small charges as he taught the past and present tense. These were eager little fellows and were thoroughly enjoying their lessons. Mark taught last year in Chang Mai, Thailand, and may stay here for six months, or until the winter makes school impossible. Further on, at the Champakang Temple, is the famous three-story statue of Maitreya. It’s the largest Buddhist figure in Ladakh and the Dalai Lama consecrated it during a visit to the monastery in 1980. I found this a very beautiful and welcoming place.

We roamed around, in and out of beautiful temples, and sat for awhile with one monk, who was wrapping a metal piece with white cotton string to make a 25-day butter lamp. By 6:30 we were ready to eat the butter lamp, so met Mark at the restaurant and had a heavy conversation about Buddhism for two hours. He recommended a small book to help clarify the complicated philosophy, and I’m enjoying it. What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Tamyang Khyentse, who also wrote and directed the films The Cup and Travellers and Magicians.

The weather was cold and overcast, but the full moon still shone through. We lingered on our balcony, enveloped in a tranquility which is so often eludes us in our “busy” lives.

At 6:30 AM the puja began. Gongs, low horns blowing, young monks (starting at age 9) chanting, incense burning. Soon they filed in and sat cross-legged at low benches covered with colorful Tibetan rugs, with a wide railing in front of them where food was put. A very tall, imposing monk had draped himself in a yellow cape, and walked around, now and then tapping one of the youngsters, as if to say, I am the disciplinarian and you’d better behave.

This was an especially long celebration in honor of the head lama’s birthday. We sat in the back with Mark, getting into the rhythm of the drumbeats and the chants. I had my digital recorder on, held in the palm of my hand. Our concentration was interrupted, however, by a tourist with a large camera and an even larger lens. We had vowed not to take pictures, for it was annoying to everyone, especialy the young monks, who hid their heads with embarrassment. Mark suggested, later, that I do a photo piece showing obnoxious tourists thrusting their cameras into the faces of terrified little monks. I might just do it. I never take a photo without asking permission.

At intervals during the puja, tea was served and tsampa distributed, which was mixed with the butter tea. Then quiet would ensue. The young monks did all the pouring and cleaning up, and as we left they were carrying large buckets of barley, veggie, and noodle soup up the stairs to the chapel. We wished we’d stayed, but wanted to get back to Leh for the Saga Dawa Festival, a celebration I had enjoyed with Cary at the foot of Mt. Kailash in Tibet four years ago.

Again, the bus was crowded, and a diminutive nun insisted on putting Karin’s lage pack on her lap. She could hardly peer over it!

By the time I had dropped my gear at the guest house and huffed and puffed up the ten thousand stone steps (well, actually 554) to the Shanti Supa above Leh, the Saga Dawa was over. I had to be content with Dawa’s description of the floats and the hundreds of people who enjoyed the raising of the flag pole and the eating of mimosas and other goodies.

When I came off the mountain, I ran into Grandma, who was standing in a deep, grave-like hole, digging up last year’s potatoes. They had been buried for the winter, and were now being bagged in burlap and sold to restaurants in the area. She is a beautiful, very dark-skinned seventy-year-old lady, who does a lot of the gardening and sits at dinner, calmly spinning her prayer wheel and chanting softly. We’ve become great pals!

Dawa’s eldest daughter, Rinchen, showed me another huge hole, where giant radishes, as big as parsnips, had been buried. She cut one to show me how fresh and juicy it still was. She also suggested that I do my wash in their new Samsung washing machine, located in the shed. Now that was an experience! First you put the water in by hose, then you set the timer. After 15 minutes you reset it to spin. Out comes the water all over the cement floor. After that the clothes are put into the spin side for further wringing. I think it takes less trime by hand, but enjoyed the process with Rinchin.

I love to listen to the Ladakhi women speak. They have a high-pitched, excited tone, which also comes across in their singing. There seems to be an underlay of joy and good humor running through their conversation. And you are always greeted by a wide smile and a lilting Julley! Julley! from every passerby. It means hello, goodbye, and thank you. Now I call that an economy of words.

Yesterday the sun rose early and stayed bright all day. I walked to the 8 AM school bus, leaving Leh for Stok and the Siddhartha School. We took a different route from the one I had become familiar with, and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, sitting next to one of the teachers as the bus became fuller and fuller. I like the idea of pupils and teachers on the same bus. They care for the little ones and make it quite a social occasion.

The acting principal, Ugyen Tsering, a Tibetan who lives in a refugee camp in the valley, met me, throwing a kata around my neck. The children, all in uniform, sat down in front of a large outdoor stage. This is desert country, so there was no grass, just dust. First they sang, then several students performed songs, or recited poetry. Everything was very orderly as they walked to their various classes. The school goes to level ten, and Ugyen took me to several classrooms. In two of them they were studying the causes of World War II and in another they were discussing the problems of global warming and how Ladakh could adjust its lifestyle to solve such problems. They already use solar heating panels extensively, because of the amount of sun, but they haven’t dealt with the terrible pollution from the cars and trucks, the garbage caused by plastic, or the lack of water. I was greeted in each room by polite children standing up and saying,”Good morning to you, Madam.” I helped with English pronounciation, which I thought was already extremely good, and took one class, where I would read and discuss and paragraph and the children would then take turns reading. I really enjoyed the English teacher, who told me that he had written several short stories and was translating them into English. He promised to send them to me. I also asked several people why everything was in English…the office sign, the teachers’ room, all the instructions. The answer was that Ladakh was a small country and English was the international language. If they were to succeed in the global economy, especially tourism, they needed English. This, of course, means that their economy is now becoming almost totally money-based, and they are subject to the vagaries of international monetary trends. But it looks as if this is the direction they are taking. I was also told that they have various school programs, one of which is debating, both Buddhist and western-style. This intrigued me, especially when I was told that the next subject would be: A woman’s place is in the kitchen. How I’d like to hear that one! These children are adorable and amazing. Can you believe that they not only speak their own language and Tibetan, but also Hindi and English. Makes me feel a bit provincial.

The reason I came to this school is Tamara Blesh, a librarian from Maine, whom I met in Dharamsala last year, and who came to Ladakh last spring and summer to set up a library at the Siddhartha School. How beloved she is for the work she did! She built the bookcases and put rugs on the floor. The books are catalogued, but they need many more. So she’s returning this summer, having ordered a challenging list of 130 more books for the students. And she told me that she will take books to the villages in the mountains, using donkeys to pack them.

Before lunch I was driven by Susheel, the school secretary, to Stok Palace, the home of the present king and of the former king, who died thirty years ago. His widow still lives in Manali. It’s an impressive place to visit with a museum of thangkas over 600 years old. After this we went to a local home where an authentic Ladakhi kitchen was preserved in a small outbuilding. The owners had a new house and extensive farm, but a very old woman took us into the cramped, low-ceilinged room where the old kitchen was, and up perilous stairs to the roof, and into a museum showing the old traditional clothing of the farmers, and their various implements. All of this she did free-of-charge, enjoying the fact that we were interested. I couldn’t believe the road that we took to get there…narrow and rimmed with mud-brick high walls. It was like a dry stream bed.

Lunch was a community affair, with one teacher in charge each month and a small amount of money contributed by everyone to cover expenses. After lunch I was able to tape and photograph kindergarteners…a lively bunch, who sang and danced on and on, and giggled with delight as I replayed their songs. I hope to return to the school and to visit Ugyen’s village.

The evening with the guest house family was warm and the food delicious. But the conversation with a young man getting his doctorate in anthropology, researching the changes in traditional Ladakhi life and medicine, was disturbing. The problems of Ladakh are not known by many of the tourists who visit the beautiful mountains and trek to the ancient monasteries. Many guest houses are going up all around, mostly using Nepalese or Indian labor. Each new room will have a western toilet, which uses precious water that they don’t have and empties it out into the gutter. It’s a total waste. There is no sewage disposal plant and the water, due to the warming of the glaciers, is fast disappearing. In the old style Ladakhi toilet, all waste was mixed with ash and composted, to be used as fertilizer. Now that westerners have insisted on more luxurious toilets, this has been abandoned in many places and insecticides and fertilizers, banned in the West, have been sold to the Ladakhi farmers. They seem to do well for a year or two, but, eventually, deplete the soil. The old system of farming is being tested, and the desire of the younger generation to make more money by moving to Leh has stripped the farmer of its labor force. In some cases there are even farmers who are hiring Nepalis to do their harvesting…something unheard of ten years ago. The new importation of rice, cheaper because it’s supported by the Indian government, now displaces the staple barley and wheat grown here.

Whenever I get discouraged about “progress,” I realize that there are those, like the Woman’s Alliance of Ladakh, who are working on these problems. The strange thing is that while this part of the world is embracing the West as the ideal (Barbie Dolls, chewing gum, and Lay’s potato chips), the West is realizing more and more that their materialistic life is not bringing happiness and peace of mind and is looking toward the East for answers.

There is Nothing Like a Farm, Especially One in Ladakh!

I’ve already written about the glorious day I spent at a farm in Phyang with my new friend, Ajaz Ahmed. I was lucky to visit another farm last weekend, this time staying overnight at the family home of Stanzin Lhwang in Nimmo. I felt that I had stepped out of Helena Norberg-Hodges’ book into the traditional farm culture. Nothing is wasted, farming is ecologically sound, and eleven members of the family live in a large white house built of bricks and stone, with those artistic wooden windows in every room. There are even rooms underneath the house (like the Nepalese homes in the Khumba) where the animals stay in the dead of winter.

The doors are low and the door sills high to keep the cold out in winter. I walked into the kitchen/living/dining area, a huge space that reminded me of a temple on Inle Lake in Myanmar that I had visited last year. Pillars held up the roof, mattresses covered with Tibetan rugs lined two sides, a small wood stove, which burned dried yak dung, stood in a corner, and two more larger stoves were used for cooking. One whole wall displayed beautiful ornamental copper pots in glass cases. Washing was done in huge metal bowls, and there was always steaming chai (milk tea) available. I was welcomed by grandparents, parents, and a sister, and enjoyed watching the loving, joyful way Lhwang cared for his two 1/2-year-old son, a most precocious, happy child. It made me wish that the world could live in a more cooperative manner like this. Lhwang’s wife and daughter live in Leh, where the daughter is in school and the mother is teaching, but they gather at the farmhouse most weekends. During the evening meal the great-grandma was holding her prayer wheel and her beads and softly repeating mantras. I saw this last night at my guest house and wished I could capture the serenity of these wonderful old faces.

In the afternoon there was some more plowing and planting of potatoes, with lunch served in the field. I noticed that there were many small fields with stands of tall thin trees surrounded by mud-brick walls, and was told that these were cut down in the winter for fuel, only to grow once again in the summer. Nothing was left to chance.

Lhwang and I talked about everything, from the fast-disappearing tradition of arranged marriage to rebirth and Rinpoches. He has traveled extensively as a guide, and knows several languages besides Tibetan. He shared all kinds of information about the care of the family gardens, the rotation of crops and the gathering of seeds, and even the two days a week when one is allowed to wash clothes or bathe in the stream running between the farms. When mud is dug for bricks, you must first remove the topsoil, and then dig up the inferior dirt from below, before replacing the good soil. Everything that is done has the preservation of the land in mind. And as with Ajaz’s family, cooperation among villagers is paramount.

Each family has its own religious shrine (a small room with tiny silver containers for water and various paintings or replicas of the Buddha), usually tended by the grandparents. They burn incense and chant at night. I lay on my bed in a a beautiful room with large windows on two sides, reached by a steep ladder to the upstairs roof, and listened to the mantras late into the evening.

As we walked to the bus in the morning, everyone stopped to talk and share news. I went back to Leh alone, since Lhwang had been asked to help a neighbor with his plowing. This is a short season and timing is very important. We will meet later in the week to plan our treks.

In a lighter vein, let me warn you travelers about Indian banks. My experience with them has been dreadful. They define inefficiency. You are sent from office to office, where nobody seems to be working, but many are chatting on the phone. Finally, when you ask if anybody wants your money, they send you to Thomas Cook, which is most efficient and charges no fee.

I want to thank Cary for posting these blogs. Both of us are having problems with the paragraphing. I think wordpress is just playing with us and trying to challenge our readers. We’ll solve it soon, I hope. Please be patient!


These are a few of the features of this exotic place. I could write an entire piece just on some of my bus rides and on finding the right bus station in Leh. Buses come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of (dis)comfort, and I love them! I’ve been dropped off in the middle of nowhere and always found someone who can lead me to a cafe where someone else has a cell phone and can find a friend or tell me when the next bus arrives (then you run like crazy to catch it and hope to find a seat). I was waiting for a new friend, Stanzin Lhwang, whom daughter Cary made contact with in the caves of Tso Pema last summer, and met six Kahmiris from Kargil and Srinigar, here to work on broadband installations. We started conversing–everything from business to politics–and they offered me a ride this weekend to Kargil to explore parts of Kashmir. How I would have loved to go, but this is the time I’ll be starting on a four day trek with Lhwang to see if I’m fit for an eight day over two high passes when James arrives. I don’t know. This altitude is still causing me to puff up the hills! I think I’ve walked at least six miles a day, dodged a few hundred buses and taxis (agility comes with age and experience), and eaten enough dhal, rice, chapatti, and paneer to last a lifetime. I’m even finding the thought of a hamburger exciting! And a salad…well, that sends me into a swoon.

First, a few pointers for those of you wishing to use the quaint and colorful buses of northern India. I will admit that I didn’t like the night bus from Majnu Ka Tilla to Dharamsala last year, but these daytime buses in Ladakh are lots of fun. First, you need to bring small packages of tissues, for someone around you is invariably going to have a cold, and is very grateful to substitute a good blow for constant sniffing. Then you should expect that many people are going to want to practice English and get very excited when you cooperate. It’s also a good feeling to be appreciated for something you learned as a child and for which you deserve no credit. Next, you need to really love babies. They are many and they are adorable. You must enjoy making faces, but if that isn’t your specialty they’ll stare wide-eyed at you, anyway, because you look so different. And keep that repertoire of folk and nonsense songs handy. The mothers will love you and the babies respond with appropriate gurgling. If you really get on a roll, some other babies may be placed in your lap to get in on the act.

Be flexible and show no shock when a five gallon can of gasoline is placed next to your seat and covered by a 50 lb. sack of basmati rice. Extra baggage is placed in the aisle and the conductor…a very patient man…carefully walks over it to collect the 20 rupee fare individually. He also stands on the steps with the door open and signals by whistling or shouting what is going on along the way. Returning from Nimmo last Monday I happened onto a bus from Senegal, which had been traveling with its load (very tired families) for three days. I was put in the front cab with others who sat on the engine cover and draped over one another. Someone saw my camera and everyone wanted a picture. Then they motioned to the driver to pose. I was horrified, for we were on a high curve above an abyss, and the last thing the driver needed was a distraction. But it was a jolly party with lots of horseplay. This time I was left by the roadside on the outskirts of Leh. Fortunately, I had noticed that the smaller buses went to the central station, so hailed one filled to overflowing and was ushered up the aisle. An adorable Buddhist lady with a prayer wheel in her hand took my pack and insisted that I squeeze in next to her and a child. She wouldn’t think of my standing. Not a word was spoken. Just friendliness asking for nothing in return.

I’ve moved to a new and quieter and less expensive place, The Goba Guest House. My room has a view of the Shakti Stupa and Leh Palace, and the roof off which my room is situated has a view of the entire mountain range. I can never remember whether it’s the Indian Himalaya, the Ladakh Range, or the Karakoram, part of the consequence of being directionally and geographically challenged. But I know the sun comes up over those gorgeous hills and that’s good enough for me. The weather is very sunny, but can change to cold rain or snow in a moment and back to sun the next. On our trip to the famous Lake Pangong, over roads that made your wish to sink into a coma until it was over, it was sunny at the lake, but snowed tiny ball-like sleet after lunch. On this trip several days ago, I became acquainted with Mark, a young Englishman who plans to teach ESL at the Thiksay Monastery near Leh, an Italian woman, Francesca, who has been a social worker in Calcutta for a year, a Frenchman, Eduard, who has been teaching French and is now headed back to Paris, and a Calcutta business man, Munoj. What a party we made! The lake, about 130 km long and part in China, has no outlet, so is very salty. Nothing will grow in it, but the colors change with the slant of the sun and the convoluted mountains come right down to its shores. The men enjoyed skipping flat rocks that rim the shore. Boys will be boys forever! This is a 13-hour drive over the Chang La, the third hghest pass in Ladakh (17,500 ft.). After such a perilous ride we had all bonded, and spent the next evening in a farewell party for Mark and Munoj with a new friend Isaac, whom we had met that afternoon at the showing of the film based on the book, Ancient Futures, at the Woman’s Alliance in Leh. A powerful movie with a powerful discussion afterwards. Our two favorite restaurants so far are the Leh View in town and Cafe Jeevan on the Changspa Rd.

A word about the trip I took the last two days. I had hoped to trek into the Nubra Valley, but after reading the altitudes of the various mountain passes, I opted for a jeep ride…jeeps being the wonderful and ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruisers that Cary and I became acquainted with in Tibet. These are tough babies and the roads are unbelievably bad once you leave the checkpoint at South Pulu. All of these roads were built for the military and permits are required for anyone traveling the route. The valley is full of flowers and is velvet green starting in late June, but now it is a vast desert with every-changing sand color, sparse vegetation, and mountains with the most unusual striations and shapes and forms you can imagine. I went crazy taking pictures, but they all pale in comparison to the real thing. As at Pangong Lake, the roads are banks of switchbacks at intervals down the mountains–so narrow that a horn was required around most of the hairpin turns.

The Nubra Valley is a sensitive border region and was finally opened to foreigners in 1994. The two-day trip over the highest motorable road in the world (18,380 ft.), the Khardung La (pass), is one of the most frightening I’ve ever experienced, including those wild rides in Nepal and Tibet. No guard rails for the most part, and you just keep climbing over the narrow roads until you reach overhanging snow and icicles that sparkle in the sun. It’s like riding in a tunnel flanked by snow sculptures. A few times we met trucks and it’s a miracle that we didn’t plummet over the side. It has been unnerving to me to get used to driving on the left, especially when the left is clilffside.

It took three hours from Leh to cover the 39 km. to the top of the pass, but the views of the Zanskar Mountains were worth it! We were 100 meters higher than Everest Base Camp and 795 m.higher than Mont Blanc. And I felt it! This whole area is characterized by deep, sheer-sided valleys, high mountains, many still snow-covered, and long glaciers. The highest peak in Ladakh is Saser Kangri (25,165 ft.) and the longest glacier is Siachem Glacier (70 km.). It is still the scene of fighting between India and Pakistan.

After overnighting at the Snow Leopard Guest House in Hunder, we continued on to Sumoor to visit the Samstamling Monastery and view the Shyok and Nubra Rivers that are sandwiched between the Karakoram Mountains and the Ladakh Range. Fertile villages are scattered along these two valley floors. We eschewed the desert camel rides. What do they think we are…tourists?

Our two new friends on the trip were Marco and Karin, two charming teachers of handicapped and special needs children from Karlsrule, Germany. Francisca and I left them in Hunder and spent the morning climbing up a steep, rocky switchback trail to two old temples on the way to an abandoned gompa. We were able to peer into these ancient rooms and could see that they were still being tended by the monks of the Hunter Gompa, which could be reached by road, and contained age-old frescoes in the Kashmiri tradition.

The highlight of the trip was a visit the day before to the Diskit Gompa perched on a hillside, 200 meters above the village. It was comprised of multiple temples on many levels. The monks were friendly and showed us several of the temples, all with replicas of the Buddha, and beautiful wall paintings, thousands of years old. I was overwhelmed with emotion when one of the monks offered to light a butter candle in memory of Christopher, whose 54th birthday would have been the next day, May 16th.

May is a month when our entire family thinks of Christopher…his birth and his death. I feel especially privileged and comforted to be in a place of continuing spiritual awareness and practice, and Buddhist belief in the continuation of the human spirit.

Julley! Julley! I finally made it to Ladakh!

If you like heat and pollution, go to Delhi. If you like clean, cool mountain air and beautiful sunshine, go to Ladakh. Just getting here was an adventure, and probably the two most miserable days in my long travel experience. Traffic in Delhi is legendary and getting worse every day with the advent of the mini-car. Add heat at temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F. and an unfortunate one-and-a-half nights in a beautiful ashram that had everything including bed bugs, and the scenario was complete when the 5:50 A.M. flight to Leh was unable to land because of cloud cover. So back to Delhi we flew with a plane full of discontented passengers. The flight wasn’t a total loss, however, since my seatmate, an Indian army computer specialist, explained my new digital voice recorder to me during the return.

The ensuing chaos at Deccan Air, when it was announced that there would be no return flight that day as promised by the pilot, was of such high decibels that I fled the airport, assuming that the voucher I’d received was good for the next morning’s flight. A delightful Canadian traveler, Christy Willoughan, and I hunkered down at the Peterson family standby, Majnu Ka Tilla, a Tibetan enclave one hour through knotted traffic from the airport. This time it wasn’t bed bugs, but tiny virile mosquitos, whose poison was still with me days later. Note to travelers in India: always get prepaid taxis at the airports. The difference in price was as much as 1600 rupees for the trip to Majnu that cost us 230.

Three A.M. and back at the airport the next day, we discovered that neither of us was booked on the morning flight. Christy called Deccan and there was only one seat left. In a gesture of pure generosity she gave it to me, thus earning a place in heaven with the good angels!

Back we went to Leh, only to be confronted with heavy cloud cover dictating a return, once more, to Delhi. All hell broke loose! The uproar in the cabin was intense! One man stood up and urged us all to stay in our seats until the plane had refueled in Delhi and made a second attempt to land in Leh. This was the first “sit in” I’d experienced on an airline, and guess what…it worked! The plane landed and nobody moved. Soon we returned to Leh, with dire projections from a rather disconcerted pilot. But here I am, happily settled in the Oriental Guest House in Changspa, run by a joyful Ladakhi family, and enjoying this mountain paradise after two days of a very difficult adjustment to the 12,000 ft. altitude. My room is on the third floor with a panoramic view of the snowy mountains, and just walking up the narrow stone steps (with no hand railings) to my room was a chore.

Happily, my stamina and positive attitude have returned. I am surrounded by utter peace and quiet (except in the central market), and the only sounds at night are the pidgeons outside my windows. There is a feeling here that is so reminiscent of Tibet, and the people are as warm and welcoming as anywhere I’ve traveled.

Wherever I go I find that the most meaningful experiences happen in an unplanned way. I spent yesterday on a family farm in Thyang, helping plant potatoes and barley as a father and son plowed with a handmade plow pulled by two dzos (a cross between a yak and a cow). This resulted from a chance meeting on the street, when I asked directions from a young man, a student of mathematics at Jannu University in Kashmir. We talked about the disturbing changes in the family life of the old traditional farming communities, and the harsh economic changes brought on by compulsory westernization, and he said, “Maybe you’d like to visit our farm tomorrow with my father, mother, and aunt. We’re going to plow our field.” I was ecstatic! I had my first taste of climbing in the country and seeing the small farms, bisected by miles of mud brick walls. We ate at intervals during the day and when it became cold we huddled around a small fire, drinking butter tea or chai, and eating rice and veggies with our fingers. All of the food had been cooked in Leh and carried here. Sharif, the father, explained to me that the team of dzo were not his, but loaned to him by his neighbor. “He does not charge me. We help each other.” I recorded the various songs used to direct the dzos as they worked. Father and son had distinctive styles. They were lilting songs, chants, and shouts. It was hard work, but there was great joy in the effort. The ladies did not speak English, but we communicated through laughter and joking, as we competed to see who could plant the fastest. What a day it was!

I’ve been told to keep my blog entries short. I will find this difficult, but I will try. Every day is so full of new experiences and impressions, and I want to share them. If any of you are interested in this country with its fascinating culture and history, I highly recommend the book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, by Helena Norberg-Hodge. It’s very unsettling as is the vast cultural upheaval going on right now in this small part of the world.

It’s off to Ladakh, northern India

I think it’s rather symbolic to write on Income Tax Day, April 15, as I watch my money drain out of what’s left of my investments like blood from a freshly-inflicted wound. But, you say, at least you have investments. And you believe in living simply, so what’s the beef? But the question keeps arising: how can you travel so much if you’re not rich. Hey, folks, read my blog and you’ll see. I won’t have a car, so no high gas prices. I’ll pay $10/night for room, meals included, and I won’t be tempted to run into NYC to feed my theater addiction. (Only two plays this month…MacBeth and 39 Steps. I’m recovering.) And as you know, I’m a pretty good bargainer when it comes to treks and jeep rides into the mountains. I’ll let you know how I fare as I go along.

That was as far as I got in April, which brings me to May 2nd as I prepare to run out the door to catch my 19-hour flight to Delhi. Nineteen hours? Are you crazy? No, I’m going by way of Chicago which…you guessed it…gives me a very good price. What’s a little sleep when you get to see the windy city for an hour.

A capsule of this past month would include the very sad fact that Dith Pran, the lovely Cambodian journalist/photographer made famous as the central character in The Killing Fields, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 65. I spent three hours talking with him two years ago when he took my picture for a New York Times profile, and we connected over photos I had taken at Siem Reap near Angkhor Wat, his Cambodian home. His vision to end future holocausts and bring people together will live on, which he said on his deathbed, “would make my soul very happy.” He also said that one killing fields is one too many. A wonderful human being.

Daughter Cary returned after fourteen months in Nepal, Tibet, and northern India. She was there during the height of the Tibetan protests against Chinese oppression of their homeland and the fiery episodes plaguing the “torturous” journey of the Olympic torch. Her movies are inspiring—crowds of monks and civilians marching with candles, very similar to the scenes we saw last March in Dharamsala, and speeches near holy sites in Kathmandu. The papers are full of pictures and stories about the contentious crowds along the torch’s path, and I can only hope that this time the Chinese are serious about making some changes…if they do actually talk with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Yes, hope springs eternal.

On May 5th I’ll fly from Delhi to Ladakh, the highest, most remote and most sparsely populated region in India, close to Pakistan and Tibet. It’s cut off by snow for six months of the year and will just be coming into spring when I arrive. The Ladakis practice the purist form of Tibetan Buddhism and some say the monks have been meditating there from three centuries B.C. I can’t wait to meet these people and tell you more.

© 2024 Meg Noble Peterson